Memphis disbands police unit after fatal beating video

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Memphis disbands police unit after fatal beating video

The US city of Memphis on Saturday disbanded the special police unit whose officers fatally beat a young Black man, after graphic video of the assault sparked widespread shock and outrage.

The video, which shows five officers repeatedly kicking and punching 29-year-old Tyre Nichols as he moans and calls out for his mother, triggered calls for police reform.

The southern US city on Saturday announced it had deactivated the officers’ special unit, known as Scorpion, which was launched in 2021 to reduce illegal activity by assigning more police to high-crime areas.

The Memphis Police Department said in a statement it was “in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the SCORPION Unit,” which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.

“The officers currently assigned to the unit agree unreservedly with this next step,” the department added.

Several dozen demonstrators called for police reform Saturday afternoon as they gathered in the chilly rain in front of city hall shouting “No justice, no peace!” and carrying signs with slogans such as “Justice for Tyre Nichols.”

At one point, a police car ended up surrounded by a group of protesters, who directed their angry chants at the vehicle.

Memphis City Council member JB Smiley Jr addressed the crowd’s demands, speaking to protesters in the rain.

“Memphis has an opportunity to set the standard on how to respond to actions like this,” he told them. 

The five Memphis officers, who are all Black, were charged with second-degree murder in the beating of Nichols, who died in hospital on January 10 three days after being stopped on suspicion of reckless driving.

The lengthy video footage from police body cameras released Friday evening shows the group of officers detaining Nichols, attempting to take him down using a Taser, then giving chase as he evades them.

Subsequent segments — the footage runs about an hour in total, and is audio-only in parts — show Nichols calling for his mother, and groaning as officers repeatedly assault him.

“They had beat him to a pulp,” Nichols’s mother RowVaughn Wells told CNN Friday. “He had bruises all over. His head was swollen like a watermelon. His neck was bursting because of the swelling.”

Despite nationwide calls for police reform following George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests in 2020, the number of people who died during interactions with police hit a 10-year high in 2022, at 1,186 fatalities, according to the website Mapping Police Violence.

Nancy Schulte, 69, who works at a hotel in downtown Memphis, said she lost respect for city police after viewing the grim footage.

“It’s just a horrible thing,” said Schulte. “Watching five big guys beat the living heck out of this man.” 

Even after the release of the video, some key questions remained unanswered, mainly what caused Nichols to be stopped.

Family attorney Benjamin Crump accused the police of trying to cover up their actions and insisted Nichols did not violate traffic rules or reach for the officers’ guns, as police say.

“This (violence) is institutional police culture. It does not matter if the police are Black, Hispanic, or white,” he said on MSNBC Saturday morning.

“There is some innuendo, some unwritten rules that if there is a person of particular ethnicity that you can engage in excessive force against him.”

Nichols’ family called the disbanding of the Scorpion unit an “appropriate and proportional” response to their relative’s death.

“We must keep in mind that this is just the next step on this journey for justice and accountability, as clearly this misconduct is not restricted to these specialty units,” a statement from the family’s attorneys said Saturday.

“It extends so much further.” 

Protests in Memphis, Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and a handful of other cities on Friday evening after the video was released were small and largely peaceful.

In addition to second-degree murder charges, the police officers are facing indictments for aggravated assault and aggravated kidnapping.

Robert Jones, 26, a salesman at a store in downtown Memphis, told AFP he was dismayed that police brutality still runs amok.

“They say it’s a new year, but same old, same old,” Jones said.

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